Demand for energy and utility infrastructure is increasing, but the current planning process is complex, and the current pace of development is too slow to meet net-zero targets.
Companies balance technical and regulatory considerations, design and planning rules, project-specific environmental, social, technical, and financial considerations, and stakeholders' competing perspectives and priorities.
A reliance on decades-old technology compounds the challenge.
Founded in 2018, Continuum Industries has created an AI-powered network and linear infrastructure development platform called Optioneer.
This enables power, utility, and renewables companies to visualise, analyse, and comprehensively assess routing options for power lines, onshore and offshore cables, and pipelines for hydrogen, water, and CO2 in just a matter of hours, real-time iteration of designs as new data arises, recording key decisions, and mitigating against unforeseen delays at later stages.
I spoke to CEO and co-founder Grzegorz Marecki to find out more.
The pain of planning delays and inefficient processes
Marecki explained that traditionally, in energy infrastructure development, "The planning and consenting/permitting phases present numerous challenges that often result in significant delays.
The planning and consenting phases often take twice as long as the actual construction of the asset itself. In the UK, the entire process takes an average of 14 years from the initial concept to the point where transmission lines begin to move energy."
— Yep, you read that right, 14 years!
Furthermore, the urgency is underscored by an increase in the volume of projects, and "current manual methods are struggling to keep pace with this influx, leading to substantial delays and inefficiencies in delivering much-needed infrastructure."
Traditional planning is characterised by "laborious manual data collection processes, taking months to determine optimal routes and often considering only a limited number of alternatives.
"Additionally, managing multiple communication channels with project teams has proven to be challenging, making it hard to keep track of changes and updates — resulting in extended timelines when new data arises and route changes or updates are required.
While this biodiversity would be at the forefront of renewables from a sustainability perspective Marecki explained that "biodiversity baselines, which are often left until the later stages of the route optioneering process. This delay can have detrimental effects on sustainability and regulatory compliance."
Then there's stakeholder engagement, consultations, and government agency delays in the review and approval process.
"This can significantly slow down the development of critical infrastructure projects, particularly when assessing the cumulative impacts of multiple projects is necessary."
The value of AI in route planning
Marecki explained that AI plays a pivotal role in making sense of the vast amount of data in the planning and design phase, helping customers make well-informed decisions that align with financial objectives while also reducing environmental and community impacts.
"Traditionally, the planning process has been manual and prone to errors. The algorithms, however, are designed to consider this data and generate suggestions that are later subject to detailed human scrutiny.
This approach ensures humans remain in the decision-making loop, supported by in-depth analysis that helps make balanced decisions. Essentially, AI enables us to bridge the gap between data and actionable decisions.
Reducing planning time from 12 months to 8 weeks
Optioneer provides a common environment for engineers and environmental specialists to collaborate using AI to condense processes that previously took 12 months to be condensed into just eight weeks.
Marecki shared the example of a customer, a transmission system owner, faced challenges due to increasing renewable energy connection requests, necessitating new electricity transmission connections. These demands carry risks of project delays and resource strain.
Optioneer made it possible to streamline route evaluations, facilitate collaboration, and incorporate both open-source and client-specific data.
Further, "using Optioneer on the onshore wind farm extension project led to significant time savings, reducing the programme length by 60%. The platform allowed for a quicker selection of a preferred alignment while maintaining robust decision-making processes."
Marecki sees the next 30 years as critical when it comes to climate change:
"We basically have to double the size of the electricity grid globally by 2050. This is mainly because the locations where energy is produced have changed – what used to be a coal-powered power station in London (like Battersea Power Station), could now be located across the North Sea.
This completely changes the network required to power the country, and it's just one of the drivers that modern power systems are grappling with.
It's not a challenge the industry will be able to tackle without fundamental changes to how things are done. We need to build a lot, fast, and in an ever more demanding environment."
Continuum Industries is supporting customers in the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and the USA – including National Grid, SSEN Transmission, National Gas Transmission, Fred. Olsen Seawind, and Iberdrola Group – with the assessment of thousands of kilometres of assets across large-scale projects.
"Our vision is to build the go-to platform that helps developers take their project from a concept to a permit as fast as possible and at the lowest possible risk."
This latest raise will support Continuum Industries' continued growth as it aims to double headcount and expand into new territories over the next 12 months, and brings the company's total funding to date to $15.5 million.
Growing the engineering and product teams will also facilitate the creation of new cutting-edge functionality to support developers across more project stages.
Henri Tilloy, Partner at Singular, said:
Infrastructure is a vital, but under-discussed, aspect of the energy transition.
Without robust, future-fit infrastructure to transport the growing amount of energy and utilities we need – especially as "renewables come online in larger and larger volumes – all the innovation that goes into new generation and storage solutions will be wasted.
Grzegorz and the team at Continuum have built impressive technology and are already working with some significant names to enable infrastructure to be delivered at a pace that matches the urgency of the situation."
Lead image: the Continuum Industries team. Photo: Uncredited.